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Dancing figures Hellenistic world

Dancing figures Hellenistic world.
by Joshua J. Mark
published on 01 November 2018
The Hellenistic World (from the Greek word Hellas for Greece) is the known world
after the conquests of Alexander the Great and corresponds roughly with
the Hellenistic Period of ancient Greece, from 323 BCE (Alexander’s death) to the
annexation of Greece by Rome in 146 BCE. Although Rome’s rule ended Greek
independence and autonomy it did nothing to significantly change nor did it in any
way halt the Hellenization of the world of the day; in fact, it encouraged it.
Alexander the Great (r. 336-323 BCE) of Macedon led his army on a series of campaigns
which successfully conquered the then-known world from Macedon, through Greece,
down to Egypt, across Persia, to India. Alexander’s tutor was the Greek
philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE) who impressed upon him the value of Greek
culture and philosophy. As Alexander campaigned, he spread Greek thought and
culture in his wake, thus "hellenizing" (to make `Greek’ in culture and civilization)
those he conquered.
Perga / Perge
After Alexander’s death his Empire was divided among his four generals (known in
Latin as the Diadochi, the name by which they are still referenced, from the
Greek, Diadokhoi,meaning "successors"):
Lysimachus - who took Thrace and much of Asia Minor.
Cassander - controlled Macedonia and Greece.
Ptolemy I - ruled Egypt, Palestine, Cilicia, Petra and Cyprus. He founded
the Ptolemaic Dynasty which lasted until the death of Cleopatra VII in 30 BCE.
Seleucos I- ruled the remainder of Asia and founded the Seleucid Empire which
was comprised of Mesopotamia, the Levant, Persia, and part of India.
To greater or lesser extents, all of these regions were Hellenized as Greek culture and
religious beliefs influenced those of the indigenous people.
Alexander of Macedon was the son of Philip II(r. 359-336 BCE) who recognized that his
neighbors considered Macedon a backward region of little importance and decided to
change that view dramatically. Philip II had been a hostage for three years in
Greek Thebeswhere he was exposed to Greek culture, military tactics and formations,
and philosophy.
Although he made the greatest use of the military information, he decreed a complete
overhaul of his country’s educational methods and goals to create a significant center of
learning at his capital of Pella. He invited the great Greek philosopher Aristotle to tutor
his son and his son’s peers. As the reputation of the school at Pella grew, Philip II
encouraged the nobles of Greece to send their sons to Pella which not only improved
the nation’s reputation but gave Philip II valuable hostages which prevented the Greeks
from attacking him.
Greece at this time was not a unified nation but a loose confederation of city-states each
of which had its own patron deity, social structure, coinage, and government. These
city-states would sometimes ally and sometimes war on each other but their only
common bond was their language and, to a greater or lesser extent, their religious belief
structure. They celebrated different festivals at different times of the year and made war
in different ways.
If they could agree on one thing, however, it was their dislike of foreigners, whom they
referred to as `barbarians’, meaning anyone who could not speak Greek. Greek culture
at this time encompassed every aspect of civilization from literature to
philosophy, science, architecture, the arts, mathematics, astronomy, law, medicine,
war, and so on. The Greeks were justifiably proud of their intellectual achievements and
tended to look down on non-Greeks.
The region of Macedon spoke a dialect of Greek but its people were still considered
barbarians by the Greeks because they did not feel it had any culture. Macedon was
thought to be good for raw materials but little else until Philip II established the school
at Pella and, even then, the reputation of the school came from the Greek scholars Philip
employed, not from any Macedonian.
At the same time Phillip was encouraging education and culture in his capital, however,
he was reorganizing his army and enlarging it but the Greeks did not seem to notice.
They became aware of his military strength in 356 BCE during the so-called Third Social
War in which he defeated the Phocians who had seized the sacred site of Delphi. At
the Battle of Crocus Field in 352 BCE he completely defeated the Phocians and then
engaged in a series of campaigns between 355-348 BCE during which he captured a
number of Greek cities, renaming the city of Crenides Philippi in honor of himself.
Greek Phalanx
The Athenian orator Demosthenes (c.384-322 BCE) delivered a number of speeches
denouncing Philip II but these did nothing to halt Macedon’s growing power. The
Greek city-states continued to war with each other while Philip II was calmly taking
their cities for his own and enlarging his treasury. At the Battle of Chaeronea in 338
BCE, Philip II and his 18-year old son Alexander defeated the combined forces
of Athens and Thebes and this victory enabled him to form the Pan-Hellenic Congress,
with himself as its head, which established peace and effectively brought Greece under
Macedonian control. Philip did not enjoy his great victory for long, however, as he was
assassinated in 336 BCE and Alexander took the throne.
Alexander inherited not only a vast standing army but a healthy treasury,
infrastructure, and an entire nation which was now subject to his will. He did not need
to make bargains or concessions with any other country in order to initiate his policies.
He had enough power and wealth to do whatever he pleased and he chose to fulfil his
father’s desire to conquerPersia and topple what was then the greatest empire in the
He crossed from Greece into Asia Minor in 334 BCE with an army of 32,000 infantry and
5,100 cavalry and sacked the city of Baalbek and took Ephesus. In 333 at the Battle of
Issos he defeated Darius the Great of Syria but could not capture him. He went on to
take Syria from the Persians in 332 BCE and Egypt in 331 BCE. Throughout all these
campaigns, Alexander spread the culture of Greece while allowing the people of the
various regions to continue worshipping the gods of their choice and conducting
themselves as they pleased – as long as they caused him no trouble and kept his supply
lines open – while simultaneously investigating and recording the culture and other
aspects of each land. Scholar Ian Worthington comments:
Homer was Alexander's bible and he took Aristotle's edition with him to Asia...During
his campaigns Alexander was always intent on finding out everything he could about the
areas through which he passed. He took with him an entourage of scientists to record
and analyse this information, from botany, biology, zoology and meteorology, to
topography. His desire to learn, and to have information recorded as scientifically as
possible, probably stemmed from Aristotle's teachings and enthusiasm. (34-35)
Alexander the Great, Marble
In 331 BCE Alexander decisively defeated Darius at the Battle of Gaugamela and was
now supreme ruler of the regions formerly belonging to the Persian Empire. He
adopted the tile ShahanShah (King of Kings) and introduced Persian customs into his
army while, at the same time, sharing Greek culture with the people of Persia. He
carried this culture with him to India in his 327 BCE invasion which was halted only
because his men threatened mutiny if he did not turn back. He was allegedly
contemplating another move to expand his empire when he died, after ten days of
fever, in June of 323 BCE. As he did not name a successor, his four generals divided his
empire between them.
These generals, Lysimachus, Cassander, Ptoelmy, and Seleucus, initially spent their
time warring with each other for more territory but even as they ravaged the land with
battles, their very presence in the region encouraged the diffusion of Hellenization
which had been established by Alexander.
Easily the most successful of these four, in this regard as in others, was Ptolemy I (r.323282 BCE). While the other three continued their wars against each other (and against
even more of Alexander’s officers or family members), Ptolemy I made an honest
attempt at furthering Alexander’s vision of a multicultural world. His efforts
at Alexandria produced an almost seamless blending of Egyptian and Greek cultures as
epitomized in his personal god Serapis.
Serapis was a combination of Egyptian and Greek gods (Osiris, Apis, and Zeus) and his
worship was established as a state religion by Ptolemy I. Although other gods
continued to be venerated, Ptolemy I encouraged the cult of Serapis by building the
great temple of the Serapeum in Alexandria and the Great Library to accompany it. The
library drew scholars from around the world and elevated Alexandria to a center of
learning which rivaled even Athens. Under Ptolemy I, construction of the Lighthouse at
Alexandria (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World) began and the city, as
well as the entire region under his control, flourished.
Map of the
Successor Kingdoms, c. 303 BCE
As the wars of the Diadochi settled down and finished, Hellenic influence continued to
spread throughout their regions and Greek dedications, statues, architecture and
inscriptions have been found in abundance in every locale. The Great Library
at Alexandria steadily grew to become the most important center for learning in the
ancient world, drawing scholars from all over who then returned to their native towns
and cities inspired by Hellenic beliefs and scientific methods. Greek theatre flourished
throughout the lands conquered by Alexander and held by his generals and the
amphitheaters built during the Hellenistic Period show markedly Greek features no
matter the nationality of the architect nor the country of construction, one example
being, Ai-Khanoum on the edge of Bactria, modern day Afghanistan.
Greek language introduced Greek literature into the former Persian Empire, thereby
influencing the philosophical thought and writing of the region and the same held true
for the area known as Palestine where Greek literature found its way into the religious
thought and scripture of Judaism and, later, Christianity. Hellenization, in fact,
inspired one of the most popular Jewish holidays, Chanukah, which celebrates the
liberation of the Temple of Jerusalem from the Syrian Greeks under Antiochus IV
Epiphanes (175-164 BCE) who, according to the traditional story, tried to force Hellenic
gods on the Jewish people and instigated the Maccabean Revolt of c. 168 BCE.
Recent scholarship suggests, however, that the revolt was actually a civil war between
Jewish factions: Hellenic Jews who embraced Greek values and traditionalists who
resisted them. In this version of the story, Antiochus IV Epiphanes becomes involved in
this civil war on the behalf of the Hellenistic Jews and his participation is forced as
opposed to the traditional story in which he is depicted as imposing his will on the
Jewish people of Palestine. Either way, Hellenism played a crucial role in the revolt of
the Maccabees who would later found the Hasmonean Dynasty which, through its wars
with the neighboring Kingdom of Nabatea, would attract the attention of Rome and
lead to the eventual conquest of the region.
Demetrius I
Hellenistic thought is evident in the narratives which make up the books of the Bible as
the Hebrew Scriptures were revised and canonized during the Second Temple Period
(c.515 BCE-70 CE), the latter part of which was during the Hellenic Period of the
region. The gospels and epistles of the Christian New Testament were written in Greek
and draw on Greek philosophy and religion as, for example, in the first chapter of the
Gospel of John in which the word becomes flesh, a Platonic concept.
The spread of Greek influence and language is also shown through coinage. Portraits
became more realistic, and the obverse of the coin was often used to display a
propaganda image, commemorating an event or displaying the image of a favored god.
The use of Greek-style portraits and Greek language continued into the Parthian period
(247 BCE-224 CE), even as Greek as a language was in decline.
With the rise of the Republic of Rome and then the Roman Empire, Greek language,
attitudes, philosophy, understanding, and overall culture spread even further. The
Romans borrowed much of their civilization from the Greeks and as they conquered
various regions which had previously been held by Alexander’s generals, they
encouraged Hellenic thought and culture.
The Romans were far from tolerant of the beliefs of other nations unless they
corresponded closely with their own. Adherence to Hellenic thought, therefore, was a
popular alternative to persecution for the citizens of these regions. Greek thought,
language, and culture spread north to Europe through trade and, further,
by Roman conquest of regions such as modern-day France, Spain, and Britain,
Hellenizing the entire world of antiquity and influencing virtually every culture which
has contributed to the formation of learning and understanding in the world today.
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